Turkey amassed troops and moved heavy weapons to its border with Syria on Tuesday in apparent preparation for a major assault on U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters, with Ankara steamrolling over an international outcry and pledging to eliminate what it calls a “terror corridor” in its backyard.
Some analysts and U.S. lawmakers fear the looming attack will result in a genocide of the Kurdish-led Syrian Defense Forces (SDF) and the civilian Kurdish population.
Meanwhile, President Trump faced down outrage at home over his stunning decision this week to withdraw U.S. special operations forces serving as a buffer along the border.
Pentagon leaders insist they had been kept in the loop, but the sudden American exit caught the Syrian Kurds by surprise and led to charges that Mr. Trump was abandoning an ally that provided critical support in the fight to eradicate the Islamic State terrorist group.
Mr. Trump insisted that his administration remains an ally of both the Kurds and Turkey. He announced that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will visit the White House next month and simultaneously warned Ankara not to carry out threats to move militarily against Kurdish positions.
“We may be in the process of leaving Syria, but in no way have we abandoned the Kurds, who are special people and wonderful fighters. Likewise our relationship with Turkey, a NATO and trading partner, has been very good,” the president said in a post on Twitter. “Turkey already has a large Kurdish population and fully understands that while we only had 50 soldiers remaining in that section of Syria, and they have been removed, any unforced or unnecessary fighting by Turkey will be devastating to their economy and to their very fragile currency. We are helping the Kurds financially/weapons!”
The statements appeared to do little to restrain Turkey or ease the bipartisan fire from Capitol Hill. Key senators demanded that military and intelligence leaders brief lawmakers privately to find out exactly how much input they had in the president’s decision.
Mr. Trump argued that he was keeping a campaign promise to end U.S. military deployment in an expensive overseas “forever war” and that countries in the region must sort out their differences. Critics say the withdrawal abandons a key ally, strengthens U.S. adversaries such as Iran, Syria and Russia and sends a message that the U.S. is an unreliable ally.
Regional analysts said the coming Turkish military assault proves that Ankara cannot be restrained. Turkey says the Syrian Kurds have links to a militant Kurdish separatist movement inside Turkey and that the buffer zone in northern Syria could be used as a home for more than 3 million Syrian refugees who were driven to Turkey by their country’s eight-year civil war.
There were also signs Tuesday that Syrian President Bashar Assad was reaching out to the Syrian Kurdish forces to renew an alliance, a development that would cement his grip over the country.
Kurdish civilians in northeastern Syria reportedly began planning for large-scale sit-ins near the border with Turkey in the hopes of forming a human shield to keep the powerful Turkish military at bay. It is unclear whether such a move would deter Turkey.
Turkish officials have brushed off warnings from Mr. Trump and the global community and pledged to go as far as they deem fit.
“Where Turkey’s security is concerned, we determine our own path, but we set our own limits,” Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay said.
The full offensive has yet to begin, but Turkey reportedly has begun initial strikes. The Turkish military Tuesday launched attacks on the Syrian-Iraqi border in an effort to cut off the Kurds’ ability to bring in reinforcements for the fight.
Once it became clear this week that Turkey was determined to move ahead, officials said, Mr. Trump decided to move 50 to 100 U.S. special operations forces out of a key buffer zone along the Turkish-Syrian border lest they be caught in the crossfire. The U.S. will maintain its force of about 1,000 troops in northern Syria, but the withdrawal of the special operations forces removes the last barrier for Turkey to begin its onslaught.
Retired U.S. military leaders expressed dismay at Mr. Trump’s decision. They said the SDF, which spent years fighting alongside the U.S. against the Islamic State and suffered heavy casualties, deserves better.
“For me, the overall sentiment is one of disappointment,” said retired Army Gen. Joseph Votel, who stepped down this year as the head of U.S. Central Command. “Disappointment [that] we’re letting down our partners, perhaps adding to the humanitarian disaster in this region and that we may be ceding a hard-won strategic advantage” that could produce a “political solution to this troubled area.”
Military leaders are especially concerned about the prospect of an Islamic State resurgence. The SDF is responsible for the detention of thousands of ISIS fighters, and there is growing fear that those fighters could be released or escape from prison as Kurdish attention and forces focus on the clash with Turkey.
“We should remember in the beginning of ISIS, they got a lot of their combat power by breaking people out of prison in places like Mosul and other places,” Gen. Votel said during a speech at the Atlantic Council. “Thousands of fighters instantly joined like that, and while we’ve been successful in liberating the caliphate, the physical part of it, we certainly haven’t eliminated the ideologies that drive them.”
‘Sanctions from hell’
Security analysts say the president’s withdrawal order suggests that he trusts Mr. Erdogan, who will be traveling to Washington for talks with Mr. Trump at a personal level. It’s a trust that may not be warranted, they said.
“What we have seen from the president has been an inclination to want to trust Erdogan, who is — let’s be very clear — an autocratic figure in Turkey and an Islamist one at that,” Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice president for research at the Washington think tank Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told reporters Tuesday.
While Mr. Trump has threatened to “obliterate” Turkey’s economy if it moves against Kurds in northern Syria, lawmakers are preparing their own response. Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, said Congress will pursue devastating economic sanctions.
Mr. Graham, a close ally of the president, joined Sen. Christopher A. Coons, Delaware Democrat, on Tuesday to demand a closed-door briefing for the entire Senate from military, intelligence and diplomatic leaders to learn more about the president’s decision.
“We are concerned that this was an abrupt decision taken in the face of reported opposition from military and diplomatic advisers, and that thousands of hardened ISIS fighters and thousands more ISIS supporters currently in detention may become free to fight again as their Kurdish captors turn to defending themselves against a Turkish incursion,” the two lawmakers wrote in a letter to Senate leadership.
Pentagon leaders insisted that military leadership was involved in discussions about the U.S. presence in northern Syria, though questions remain about whether Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper or Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley were explicitly informed before Mr. Trump announced the withdrawal on Twitter late Sunday evening.
“Despite continued misreporting to the contrary, Secretary Esper and Chairman Milley were consulted over the last several days by the President regarding the situation and efforts to protect U.S. forces in northern Syria in the face of military action by Turkey,” Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said in a statement. “The department’s position has been and remains that establishing a safe zone in northern Syria is the best path forward to maintaining stability.”
Former Defense Secretary James N. Mattis abruptly resigned 10 months ago in the wake of another surprise announcement from Mr. Trump that he was pulling all U.S. troops out of Syria. The order was subsequently modified, and an estimated 1,000 U.S. special operations forces remain inside the country.
“Unfortunately,” Mr. Hoffman said, “Turkey has chosen to act unilaterally. As a result, we have moved the U.S. forces in northern Syria out of the path of potential Turkish incursion to ensure their safety.”
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